I just posted a thing about summery songs, and one of the commentators reminded me of “Abhi Abhi” from Socha Na Tha. Which then reminded me about Socha Na Tha as a whole. I looooooooove Socha Na Tha! And I feel like, as Imtiaz Ali gets further and further from his roots, his first big break film is getting forgotten. And it shouldn’t be! Because I think it is better than what he is doing now. And it says something much more interesting about Indian society than all the Tamasha‘s and Rockstar‘s and Highway‘s put together.
Socha Na Tha was produced by Dharmendra in order to launch his nephew, Abhay. Part of it’s greatness is what a wonderful launch movie it is. Small, unassuming, no big expectations (unlike, say, Refugee and Abhishek/Kareena), a nice sort of dip your toe in the water kind of production, not a leap in feet first to a career one.
Plus, Abhay’s character is really perfect for Abhay. Young and innocent, taking advantage of his fresh-faced first-film vibe. But also urban, westernized, wealthy, thinks he’s cooler than he is. Which matches with Abhay himself, as we have come to know him in the years since. This is more of an artsy artistic intelligent films kind of guy, not a big blockbuster type.
And he’s supported by an excellent-but-not-too-excellent cast. That’s one of the (few) problems with Kaho Na Pyar Hai. It was an perfect showcase for Hrithik, but whenever he wasn’t onscreen and you were stuck with overly emoting, poorly styled, and badly scripted Amisha, your attention wandered. Definitely not a problem here, Ayesha is adorable, and the rest of the cast is rounded out by character acting stalwarts from Suresh Oboroi (Viviek’s Dad! and he plays Abhay’s Dad in this) to Sandhya Mridul (Rani’s sister in Saathiya, Ayesha’s sister in this). But at the same time, the supporting cast is carefully modulated not to over-shadow Abhay, no issues like Rani Mukherjee being the best part of Saawariya here.
Finally, it’s not a very original movie. I mean, it is, in ways I will describe in a second, but not in any ways that the audience would find notable or threatening. It’s a nice sweet little romance, that’s it. No big political statements or aesthetic challenges or anything like that. Good songs, pretty costumes, location shoot in Goa, and it ends with a wedding/elopement, as all movies should.
I give the credit for most of this to Dharmendra. Basically, he only produces launch films, for all those various Doel relatives he wants to start out right. And this was his 3rd hit launch film, after launching Sunny in Betaab and Bobby in Barsaat (no, he didn’t launch his daughters. Because of that whole 2 families weirdness that we don’t talk about). So he knows how to pick a good launch film and tailor it to the needs of the particular launchee.
But he also picked a really good first time writer/director. What Imtiaz does with this film is really brilliant, interrogating the very underpinnings of the Indian romance. Or rather, re-affirming them.
The situation in the first half of this film is basically the second half of a traditional romance. Our hero, Abhay, is in love with a Christian girl. In a normal movie, the first half would be their first meeting and love story and so on. But in this case, we are just dropped into the end of it. He wants to marry her, she wants to marry him, but he knows his family won’t approve. But while he is working up his nerve to talk to his father, his family arranges for him to “meet” Ayesha, a nice girl from a nice family who they want him to marry. Love triangle!
Except, not really. Because the movie questions our understanding of what “love” really is. Is love the girl he’s been dating since high school, who he writes songs about, who he moons over to all his friends?
Or is it the one who he just really likes talking to? Who inspires him to be a better person? Who he inspires to feel comfortable in her own skin and let loose a little?
And is love something you can find in a moment, something that leads to big dramatic pronouncements and realizations, or is it something that sneaks up on you? That changes you without you even realizing it? That makes you feel like you and one other person are all that matters in the world?
The big movement of the film isn’t that the characters fall in and out of love, it’s that they realize love isn’t what they thought it was. He doesn’t want to marry his girlfriend, not just because he is in love with Ayesha, but because he knows what they had together wasn’t right. And in the end, she realizes it too. That’s another thing I love about this movie, there are no “evil” characters. His girlfriend was in love with him, she wanted to marry him, but months later, after everything’s blown over, she realizes that he didn’t feel the same way, and it was better to have her heartbroken than be part of a broken marriage.
Beyond realizing what love is, they also need to grow into different, better, people before they deserve love. Abhay figures out what he wants, and then goes about getting it in the most selfish cowardly way possible. Yes, he and Ayesha are truly in love, but that doesn’t give them the right to ignore the needs of others. Which is why he is left heartbroken, dreaming of her, instead of getting to be with her
And at the same time, Ayesha is coming to a different realization. That her perfectly nice groom, the guy she used to date in college, isn’t the one she wants. That she can go through with the marriage and make her family happy, but she will be miserable all her life and it isn’t worth. She deserves to be selfish, in the end it is better that way.
Now, here’s what makes this film really interesting, instead of just very well-made. Strip out all the bells and whistles, and this is a story that justifies arranged marriages. Both Ayesha and Abhay had relationships with people they found on their own. And they convinced their families to agree to turn those relationships into marriage. And it would have been the worst thing possible for them.
They didn’t need someone they had fun with, someone they went clubbing with and partied with, they needed someone they could build a life with. Someone who had the same values, way of thinking, interests. And at the same time, was different enough to challenge them, to balance them. Basically, what your parents look for in an arranged marriage!
It’s a clever twist at the end, that Ayesha suggests they elope-but-not-elope. Because they know their families approve of the relationship, it would just be getting through the wedding that would be tricky (after two broken engagements and so on). But it’s also an awareness that they are marrying now with their families’ blessings (unspoken though they may be).
Strip out all of the twists and turns and complications, and his family wanted him to get married so he would grow up and hers wanted her to marry so she would be happy. They arranged they meeting, and six months later, here they are, married, and grown-up and happy (respectively).
And that’s why “Abhi Abhi” is the big break out hit of the film. Because it is clearly based on “Kabhi Kabhi” from the film of the same name. In which Amitabh gives up his true love, Raakhi, so she can marry the man her parents have chosen for her, awesome Shashi. 20 years later, they meet again. And it is sad, but it is also good. They are both with other people now, happy(ish) in their new marriages. Maybe in the 70s it would have been a clean break, no backward looks, your parents forced you apart. But in the 2000s it is left up to the couple to come to the realization on their own, that the college romance is shallow and empty, that a marriage requires so much more, that it is better to be with nice reliable cheerful Shashi Kapoor than dreamy and dramatic Amitabh. Or, in this case, with cheerful Ayesha who makes you happy than with brittle Apoorva Jha.